Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling, by Carole Satyamurti (Norton, 2015; £25).
In this remarkable book, the British poet Carole Satyamurti has adapted the classical Sanskrit epic as an English poem in blank verse. While it inevitably represents a great condensation of the original (which is about twelve times as long), the result is still a work of impressive length (842 pages); as Vinay Dharwadker comments in the afterword, it 'emerges modestly as the longest successful experiment in narrative poetry in modern times'. It is in fact as narrative that the work is most engaging. In contrast to traditional prose translations, Satyamurti's verse succeeds in infusing this great story with urgency and occasionally bruising emotional intensity. The reader becomes involved in the inexorable development of the conflict between the Pandavas and the Kauravas and invested in the fates of many of the enormous cast, and the ethical complexities of their stories. For example, Karna, ally of the Kauravas, refuses to ally himself with his brothers the Pandavas in a scene of gripping drama: 'I have no illusions. But my honour / is more precious to me than life itself. / I know the dreadful bloodbath that is coming / has been caused by me and my associates / encouraging the folly of Duryodhana. / But it is too late. I will not betray / those I love, or the Kaurava for whom / I have pledged to die, if die I must.'
The appearance in the subtitle of the word 'modern', with reference to a work that obviously represents a sincere attempt to capture the spirit of a poem that may have attained its current form 1600 years ago, is arresting. Satyamurti sees contemporary references in a story that explores the issues surrounding a war in which many of the participants have the power to use weapons of literally mass destruction, but the supposed modernity of the work lies mostly in the use of language that, while dignified, steers clear of archaism and, impressively, minimises gender bias without clumsiness. It is only fitting for a twenty-first century incarnation of the Mahabharata, which occupies such a central place in the spiritual lives of present-day Hindus, to appear as a work of continuing relevance.
As the subtitle asserts, the poem is a new work, a retelling, rather than a translation; Satyamurti cannot read Sanskrit. It has no pretensions to being a scholarly edition. In order to guide the general reader through the forest of names and allusions, a glossary and detailed table of contents are provided, but the lack of an index is regrettable. Readers without a background knowledge of Indian mythology are certain to be confused, but it is to be hoped that they will be sucked in anyway and that the poem will lead to increased knowledge of and interest in the original masterpiece.